In response to a wave of negative reaction from students, faculty, alumni/ae and others, Drake University has pulled its “D+” in favor of what it hopes is a higher grade. The online campaign, Drake Advantage, now features an animated “Drake” followed on another screen by the “+” sign and other images. The content of the campaign remains essentially the same. In an email message to the Drake community, President David Maxwell acknowledged the negative reaction and explained his decision to revise the campaign. Does this mean that already printed and distributed copies of the “D+” logo now become collectors’ items?
on-campus and off. After encountering a storm of criticism and joking on the internet, Drake officials stoutly defend the campaign, including their use of the controversial logo. From a marketing execution standpoint, however, the grade of “D+” is well earned.University recently trotted out a new student recruitment campaign, “The Drake Advantage,” with a “D+” logo that has attracted a lot of attention, both
College Branding 101
In an email message to faculty and staff, Drake officials justify their campaign by pointing to the challenge facing any college marketing or branding effort: how to gain your target’s attention. To 16-year-old prospective students and their families, most college recruitment materials look alike. Most colleges tout the same features in very similar ways. After all, how many pictures of smiling students under trees can one take? Having researched their admittedly edgy approach with focus groups, Drake’s marketing team, with the help of Stamats, Inc., concluded that their primary target would give the D+ materials a second look:
When presented with a brochure cover design that featured the stylized D+ graphic, more than three-quarters of the respondents indicated the cover grabbed their attention either a little or a lot. In addition, nearly 90 percent of the respondents felt the concept was unique from other college and university materials they have seen. The testing also explored the relevance of the Drake Advantage theme. When asked if the Drake Advantage concept conveyed that “attending Drake would give me a distinct advantage that might not be available from other colleges and universities,” three-quarters of the participants responded affirmatively.
Furthermore, more than two-thirds of the respondents indicated the concept differentiates Drake from other institutions being considered. And perhaps most importantly, more than 60 percent of those who completed the survey indicated that receiving a brochure based on the Drake Advantage concept would make them more likely to want additional information about Drake. Only 3 percent of the respondents reported they would be less likely to want more information about Drake after receiving such a brochure. . . .
Our experience in the survey and in the field suggests that the kind of students whom we want to attract to Drake easily understand and appreciate the irony of the D+, and that it is having the intended effect of encouraging students to find out more about what makes Drake so special.
So far, so good. Drake’s research apparently shows their primary target is paying attention. An edgy approach can move prospective students to look a little closer. But that is hardly the end of the matter.
While emotional response strongly influences a student’s college choice, it does not justify it completely. Today’s students and, especially, their families want assurance that their academic and other needs will be met, that their substantial investment will pay off. Drake might have their attention. And Drake claims that the content of the campaign adequately conveys the advantage of a Drake education. Perhaps so. But the D+ logo also connotes a less-than-mediocre grade for the university, perhaps not as ironically as intended. Not all attention is good attention. Uniqueness does not equal quality.
Bringing the Faculty on Board
Drake officials candidly admit (hence, the reason for their email to faculty and staff) that they failed to invite faculty and staff to preview the campaign. Big mistake! All too often, college branding materials are created with little or no input from faculty. Such a procedural omission breeds cynicism and disgust among faculty toward all “marketing” or “branding” efforts (many faculty detest the very words). As I argue in a recent white paper, “Why Content Matters in College Branding” (available upon request), interviewing faculty is necessary to make sure that marketing materials accurately convey what is actually happening in academic programs. To be sure, faculty should not have final say about the design of a campaign, but they should be consulted to ensure that the brand fairly and consistently represents the institution’s distinctiveness.
The problem with the D+ logo in that regard is that it conveys the unintended impression that Drake University’s academic programs and grading standards are inferior, deserving merely a “D+” grade. That impression is unavoidably associated with the unfortunate logo. Otherwise, the irony that Drake officials claim is so effective would not work. And I have a strong hunch that many Drake faculty would object to creating that sort of impression. Perhaps, to remedy bring practice into line with marketing, faculty could invert the order of their grading scale! Then, the university wouldn’t have to count on their students’ accurate detection of irony!
Will Drake’s new recruitment campaign produce an A+ class of first-year students? Will it continue to garner attention—the sort of positive attention that Drake officials intend—in future years? It’s too early to tell.
My daughter graduated from Drake, and I wish the university no ill will. I hope the campaign succeeds beyond their wildest dreams. But as a former professor, I know how very difficult getting students to appreciate and understand irony can be. And now as a marketing professional, I fear that the big “D+” will turn out to be a colossal mistake that actually justifies itself as a final grade.
- Drake University’s ‘D+’ Logo Earns Failing Grade (huffingtonpost.com)
- Drake University’s ad campaign gets big D+ (adweek.blogs.com)